The Art of Travel and the Everyday
One of the things that Alain de Botton does in The Art of Travel is set up a comparison between travel and its opposite - staying at home. We can think of this as a binary opposition since you cannot travel and stay at home at the same time. What he says about being at home is just as important as his ideas about going away, and one of the great benefits of travel is that it provides the contrast that helps us to see our everyday lives more clearly. How many of us have been away on holidays, had a great time, and come home with a plan to change - go to the beach more, or start a fitness routine, or spend less time on on the computer and more time with friends?
Bringing philosophy into the realm of the every day is one of the driving forces of Alain de Botton’s work. He tells us that travel is not an issue that is often philosophised about. (What is philosophy? de Botton helpfully defines it for us as “issues requiring thought beyond the practical” (p. 9).) One of the things that philosophers are trained to do is interrogate an idea, to break it down to its most minute level and de Botton does this with the concept of everyday life. What do we do every day that we barely think of because it is automatic? We might say that even if we wanted to we couldn’t recognise everything that we think or do in a day because it is not really visible to us. Have you ever caught the bus home after school, looked out the window the whole way but when it was over couldn’t recall anything that you had seen? Our real, everyday lives are filled with lots of boring details “wearing us out with repetitions, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines” (p.14) that we mostly just ignore. They are not like a movie or a novel that can be selective in what is included and can speed up or slow down a story depending on how much detail is provided (these are some of the main features of representations). Representation and reality are not the same thing - as anyone who has looked at the lives of people on instagram knows! For de Botton, travel is like an instagram pic where everything looks perfect, whereas the everyday is the behind-the-scenes where we have to face insecurity, boredom, imperfection and loneliness.
It is a universal practice to represent our everyday lives because we want to share our lives with others. Think of the earliest cave paintings that show hunters and their prey. How often do you and I see representations of our own everyday lives? Probably more than we realise (and probably a lot more than we used to since the invention of social media). The picture of the burger at McDonalds. Youtube videos that record what I wore, what I ate, or what I read. Selfies. These are all representations of everyday life. (The recent case of Essena O’Neill quitting social media is an interesting example of the tension between the image and the reality.)
Try some close reading: Look at page 34. de Botton gives an account of the amazing detail involved in the travels of an aircraft. We can imagine an aircraft travelling the world, passing overhead, whilst someone is in their kitchen in suburban London making a cup of tea. And then there is the very short sentence: “The everyday”. It is a term and an idea returned to several times throughout Chapter 2. Another example (from p. 31) describes the desire of the writer Baudelaire to leave France “with no reminder of ‘the everyday’”. See if you can identify other references to everyday life. When an author returns to an idea multiple times it becomes a theme in the work. What is de Botton’s purpose in returning to this idea? He wants us to see our everyday lives from a different perspective “And to think that all along, hidden from our sight, our lives were that small: the world we live in but almost never see, the way we must appear to the hawk and to the gods” (p. 39).
Alain de Botton has a very interesting Youtube channel called The School of Life which has some riffs on the everyday working lives of people around the world which are quite fascinating.